NCAA and the NFL go hand in hand - most college players aspire to play in the NFL, and while this might appear to suggest the best gridiron on offer is found in the NFL, fans of the college game will be quick to differ on their opinion. The atmosphere, the rivalries, the heart and the determination are arguably unmatched in the NCAA, and it is EA's job each year to capture this in their concisely named NCAA Football series. 06, the latest version, was recently released, and while it fails to live up to a few expectations, the representation of this fine sport is second to none in most regards.
The new big feature this year in NCAA Football 06 is Race for the Heisman mode. Basically, you make a player in a position of your choice (except offensive linemen), do an initial mini drill and choose which school to attend based on your offers. The better you perform in the drill, the better the offers will be. Drills differ depending on your position of choice obviously. In any case, once given a spot on a team, you play out your seasons as usual except you have no control over team management aspects such as recruiting and discipline - emulating the perspective in which you're playing, that is, the perspective of an individual player. You can access stats, schedules, fan mail etc from your dorm room, which is basically the RFTH mode's main menu.
The aim of RFTH is to, as you may have guessed, win the Heisman trophy. You have four years in college football to do it, and as you progress closer to this goal your dorm room will improve, and (believe it or not) your girlfriend will become more and more attractive (who is represented by a small photo in your dorm only, so there won't be any "Hot Coffee" slip ups by EA here). While the concept of RFTH has a lot of promise, it is rather bland and basic. You play games like you would any - meaning you control everyone on the field and not just your created player. While this is probably a good idea gameplay wise, it doesn't do anything to make you want to play the mode itself, unlike SEGA's "First Person Football", which would probably work nicely in a mode like this. There is just really very little benefit in playing RFTH when you could easily "adopt" a freshman in the normal Dynasty mode to concentrate on while controlling the team's management at the same time. The only real benefit is for gamers who don't like managing recruiting and rosters, but if that's the case you only have 4 seasons of gameplay before you'd have to start over again, which go by pretty quickly.
With that said, the bread and butter of NCAA remains in the Dynasty mode - after all, the RFTH mode turns into the standard Dynasty mode once your 4 years as a college player are up. This year, the Dynasty mode hasn't seen a huge amount of improvements, but then again it was pretty darn good last year - without the need to cover areas like contracts, the draft, free agency, player agents, trade talks etc like in the NFL, one would think the management side in a college game is boring but NCAA 06 make sure that isn't the case. The off season remains basically the same, but this year we see mid season recruiting. Some high school players will be looking for teams to take their college game to before their college career is even close to starting, so during a season you can attempt to attract their attention. You are given points to spend, and obviously the more you spend on any given player the more they will be interested, although other factors weight into each prospect's interest level, including location, team and coach prestige, and academics to name a few. On top of this, you can invite them to watch a home game of yours, and if you impress, your chances of recruitment will improve. By impress, I don't just mean win; a WR will like to see a good passing game, a HB a good running game and so forth.
As it would seem, there is a slight quirk in both RFTH and Dynasty modes involving the simulated QB stats. Unless you completely rip it up on the field through the air, your QB won't likely be close to the top of the league in any significant QB stat - even mediocre CPU QB's are often 70%+ in completion percentage and have a TD to Interception ratio of 3:1 at the end of a season. In one particular case, a Texas Tech QB had 6000+ yards passing, 50+ TD's, < 12 Int's and 75%+ completion, which is kind of insane to say the least in a 12-13 game season. Luckily though, this quirk doesn't seem to impact the Heisman voting too much, so it is primarily a harmless quirk, but for those of us who aim for realism it is a rather annoying set back. The NCAA community is hard at work trying to find ways to minimize this quirk, and some progress has been achieved (see bottom of review) but not a complete fix, which probably won't come until NCAA 07 at the earliest.
As far as in game action goes, the main new gameplay feature in 06 is Impact players. NCAA is very much a game of variables and momentum - you have real time player rating progression which updates based on in game performance, you have composure based on a player's experience as well as in game performance, you have home field advantage where crowd's directly affect the action on field, and now you have Impact players. Basically, each team will have 3 Impact players (2 before Week 5 in a Dynasty), which are recognizable by a white circle under their feet, and at various times during a game, an Impact player will go "in the zone", forcing this circle to pulse rapidly. A linebacker in the zone can be an absolute beast, stripping balls and sacking QB's with fiery power. A HB in the zone will showcase unique jukes and break tackles, complete with a Matrix style time freeze + camera rotate effect (which can be turned off if so desired). Most positions can host an Impact player, except for Offensive Linemen (poor guys never get a break, eh?). During a Dynasty, players are granted Impact status at the start of every season based on their statistical performance relative to their fellow team mates, meaning a 65 OVR HB could be an Impact player on a team with lower rated players. Sometimes you will see weird Impact player allocations such as an under performing LB but more often than not, the guys who performed exceptionally for you the previous year will be rewarded with that status.
While the Impact player feature may sound a tad "arcadish", it really isn't. Like in real life, the Impact player feature creates a demand for real time gameplan changes. Going up against an Impact linebacker, for instance, literally requires you to respect his position on the field at all times, because he will have no worries about attempting to strip balls from your RB's and often will succeed. I'm not kidding here, you literally have to strongly consider changing plays at the LOS if they go anywhere near an impact LB - I'm sure you can imagine how fun going up against 2 OLB Impact linebackers must be. At times the performances of Impact Players can seem insane, but this is college football we're talking about here; a football league where some real life matchups are so out of balanced it's almost criminal.
Improvements to the gameplay go beyond Impact Players though. This year, we see far better blocking in both the passing and running games - if a counter run doesn't work, it won't often be because a pulling offensive linemen missed a key block anymore. Running up the middle is also much improved with gaps forming and closing in a realistic fashion. Finally, new to the running game this year are two new moves - shoulder charge, which is performed by holding Up on the Right Analog stick, and "Juke Back" - a juke we saw in ESPN 2K5 which basically forces the ball carrier to stop in his tracks in an attempt to dodge tackles coming from the sides. Both of these work very well for their respective ball carrier types - shoulder charges work well with bigger more physical players, whilst the back juke works well with faster more elusive players. For example, Reggie Bush is an absolute magician of the back juke in this game.
The animations in the game have also improved vastly. New are 2 on 1 tackles, some awesome stretch catches, impressive break tackles, some truly bone shattering hits as well as some nice new "drag" style tackles, and much more. A lot of the game feels new and fresh thanks to these new animations, which is always welcome to a game which is released yearly. The same can't be said about the commentary though, but that is almost expected now days in EASports games. As a side note, in case you're new to the series, you may be confused about the player names, or lack thereof. EA do not have rights to the player names out of the box, so you will see "QB #13" etc on the back of jerseys, but for anyone with the ability to transfer PC files to console, you will be able to download fully named rosters found online made by dedicated independent roster makers (see below review).
Last year, the Xbox version of NCAA 2005 suffered from a few problems which, in my opinion, made it primarily unplayable. It showed great promise gameplay wise but suffered from terrible game speed slow down issues, and the infamous WR drop issue. NCAA 06 has addressed both of these issues, to an extent anyway. The game plays far smoother than it ever did last year, and while at some points you may notice a slow down here and there, they are bearable and don't affect your gameplay. If you played 2005 extensively on the Xbox, you will feel very pleased with 06's Xbox game speed and general all round smoothness.
As for the dropped catches, this still exists in 06, but no where near as bad. Last year there was just no rhyme or reason to the catches receivers dropped, but this year, after playing a few games, you get the "feel" of the game and begin to learn which routes require you to lead your receiver for a successful catch, which routes not to lead, and which routes to basically ignore unless they are a last resort. It is a shame EA haven't made the catch slider effective enough to create a much more catch friendly game as even the catch slider at max creates this somewhat difficult passing gameplay, but at least this year in NCAA you can get a completion percentage above 50% without too much trouble - smart passing and not being scared to take the sack here and there will likely produce 60%+ games for your QB.
Unfortunately 06 has gone back in one area, and that is pass coverage. NCAA 2004 was an offensive showcase, and 2005 had far more balanced DB's who, in situations like double coverage, usually did their job. 06 seems to revert back to 2004, because even triple coverage is sometimes not enough particularly when going deep, and forget about swatting a ball from an Impact receiver. This creates a reasonable level of frustration, and while slider tweaking does help, the problem will show its ugly head far too often. The problem is basically found in the new WR jump catch animations - they go for the ball very nicely, stretching and diving when needed, but defensive backs don't, in fact they rarely seem to ever leave their feet at all without human intervention. If you play realistically and don't abuse the deep ball the CPU also tend to be less aggressive, but there will be times where you will feel completely cheated by a CPU QB who somehow connects with a mediocre WR for a 60 yard bomb over your All American Senior CB.
NCAA has never been known for its visuals, often coming in 2nd to Madden in EA's American football lineup. This year, while the same outcome may remain, the gap is a certainly smaller - the models seems slightly tweaked in NCAA 06, particularly with the big uglies which looked like large running backs last year, but now look authentic in body shape and proportion. The field and uniform textures also seem slightly improved, particularly the shading. Otherwise though, the game basically looks the same as last year and still has reasonably bland face and body options - it is arguable most players in NCAA 06 look the same face and body wise. Unlike Madden, which features muscle and fat mass ratings for each limb, it is hard to see significant difference in NCAA 06 between a 190lb WR and a 230lb one.
Control wise NCAA 06 is a very mixed bag. The default control scheme this year completely changes the layout fans of the series will be use to - the Right analog stick is for juking and D-Line stunt moves (which makes it near impossible to sprint and do a D-Line stunt at the same time), "A" is used for sprinting on defense and "B" is now switch player, and the Left trigger is used for real time taunt/celebrations. You can choose to use the traditional 2005 scheme, but even this isn't absolutely identical to last year's - for example, "L" and "R" Trigger are Left and Right jukes respectively and "White" is stiff arm. Last year, "L" was stiff arm and "R" was juke. I actually like the "2005" scheme in 06 better than the real NCAA 2005 controls but the fact remains regardless of control scheme, you will need to learn new controls, even if it's just one or two changes.
NCAA 06 only sees release in the US, which is unfortunate because it is arguably the best gridiron experience on offer gameplay wise - the game feels alive and completely random, and while this can at times become a negative for realism sake, it still makes for some truly awesome gameplay - the amount of times you just sit back and say "wow" about what you see on screen is too much to ignore, but then again, the amount of times you just sit back and say "bullshit" is pretty frequent as well. The game has made quite a few strides since last year, but at the same time it will annoy gamers who don't appreciate the occasional unprovoked offensive shootout. It is also a shame to see the RFTH mode fail to amount to what it could have been, but this is no doubt a mode which will see plenty of fine tuning in future versions. It isn't perfect, but NCAA 06 is still likely going to be the most fun you'll have playing gridiron on your Xbox this year if it's the sport you love, and not the league.
Some Handy Links
Being the avid Gridiron gamer that I am, I like to get the most out of my games, so here are some links which helped my NCAA 06 experience:
(NOTE: Links may require registration at each respective website. Trust me, it is well worth it)
Note, most of our gameplay was based on default All American settings and then later "Playmakers College Gameday Sliders".
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